Thursday, 14 June 2012

'You Get What You Pay For': extended mix

The following is an extended version of an article which appears in the print version of the Times Higher Education, No. 2,054, released 14 June 2012 (online

You Get What You Pay For: the Quebec student strike and tuition fee policy

Quebec’s student protests have garnered international media attention and it is about time – the student strike began almost four months ago and the related civil disobedience has paralysed Quebec’s higher education institutions. With last week’s failure of the latest round of negotiations between the provincial government and student protest leaders, it is worth reminding ourselves of the issue which ignited the protests: student opposition to a proposed increase in Quebec’s tuition fee cap. International media have failed to contextualize the protests with details of what the Quebec government was proposing. Revisiting the government’s fee proposal may change some minds about the protesters’ cause.

How do tuition fees work in Quebec?

Like all Canadian provinces, the Quebec government exercises the ability to cap the undergraduate and professional program fees universities in the province can charge. However, two important caveats to the government’s authority need to be understood:
1)     As legally autonomous institutions, Quebec universities retain the legal right to charge any level of fee they wish. They accept the fee cap set by the provincial government because the government can financially penalise universities that transgress the cap by reducing public grants to the offending institutions.
2)     Universities are obviously at liberty to charge a fee lower than the cap set by the government.
It is worth noting that all Canadian provinces behave in the way described above, more or less (for a more detailed explanation of the situation in Ontario please refer to

As part of its new provincial budget announced in February 2012, the Quebec government proposed to increase the provincial cap on the permissible annual tuition fee from C$2,519 (approximately £1,570) to C$3,793 (£2,360) over a five-year period, grandfathering the increases for students ‘in program’ (meaning students would continue to enjoy the fee cap in place when they started their program for the duration of the program).

And students are left to fend for themselves? That’s barbaric!

No, there are lots of government and institutionally administered grants and loans programs. Students are not automatically eligible for grants and loans, however. They must apply for them and the majority of grants and loans are means-tested. This means that (arguably) only those students needing financial assistance receive it. Generally, those in greatest financial need receive more grants than those in less financial need.

In Canada, student financial assistance comes from both the federal and provincial government, coordinated through individual provincial programs. Without going into the intricacies the provincial and federal student financial assistance programs, financial need is determined according to factors such as household/family income, dependents cost of program, where the applicant will be studying, etc. These grants and loans assist students with both “maintenance” (aka living costs) and educational costs, including fees, books, and equipment.

The Canadian and provincial governments act guarantors for all students qualifying for student financial assistance and pay the interest accruing on a borrower’s loan while they are in full time study. Loan repayment is triggered by termination of study (with a small “breathing period” of 6 months). Graduates who received public loans finding themselves unable to make repayments may qualify for programs which will continue to pay the interest of, or even pay down, their loan depending on the borrower’s post-study income.

How do Quebec’s fees compare to the rest of Canada?

The proposed Quebec government policy change would have represented a 75% increase in the fees charged to undergraduates. However, Quebec has the lowest student fees in Canada. Even after the proposed phased increase, Quebec students studying in Quebec would have annual fees at least C$1,500 below the national average (see Figure 1).

But a fee increase would just allow the government to make cuts to university grants, wouldn’t it?

Unlike England’s recent fee changes, the Quebec fee increase was not intended to replace existing public grants to universities. The Quebec budget pledged to increase public grants to universities by C$850 million (£529 million) over the same period as the fee increase. More than 50% of this new public funding was earmarked for teaching and student services. The intention of the new fee policy, coupled with the increased government funding, was to improve the quality of education and student experience for Quebec’s undergraduates.

It is easy to understand why students might be upset if they were asked to contribute more money in exchange for a substandard education. But, as the maxim states, “you get what you pay for”. Quebec’s universities are currently the most underfunded in Canada, in no small part because of low fee revenue.  An insightful opinion piece by political commentator Jeffery Simpson in the Canadian national daily newspaper, The Globe and Mail, pointed out that Quebec’s universities fare poorly in international rankings compared to other provinces’ universities despite Quebec representing close to quarter of Canada’s total population (see According to Simpson, the Quebec government conservatively estimates the funding gap between Quebec’s universities and the North American average to equal C$600 million (£374 million) annually. Arguably Quebec’s most famous higher education institution, Montreal’s McGill University, forecasts a $7 million and a $3.9 million deficit respectively for the next two years, pending a resolution to the fee standoff.

Higher fees and larger government grants were meant to address this chronic funding shortfall. The increased fee revenue and government grants, phased in over a five-year period, were meant to address the funding shortfall. Provided the universities could control salary demands made by existing academic staff, most, if not all, of the additional fee revenue could have gone to improvements to Quebec students’ experience at university. As long as the student strike continues and the Quebec government is politically paralysed, this plan to bring Quebec in line with university funding in other provinces is in question.

But Quebec’s universities are more accessible, right?

Despite having had the lowest student fees in the country for some time, Quebec’s educational attainment rate is comparatively mediocre given that fees have been kept low to encourage access. Statistics Canada reports that 48% of Quebec’s 25-65 year old population have completed a higher education credential, including college and university awards. This is compared to a Canadian provincial average of 52% and Ontario’s average of 58% following twelve years of some of the highest fees in the country (please see Figure 2).

A recent study comparing university access by family income confirms that Quebec’s low fees have not contributed to improved access. Finnie, Childs, and Wismer (2011) found that university participation of students with annual family incomes of C$5,000-25,000 was up to twenty percentage points lower in Quebec (with the lowest fees in Canada) compared to Ontario (with the highest fees). The difference dropped, but only slightly, to 14 percentage points for family incomes between C$25,000-75,000. The income groups with the lowest difference in access were the highest, C$75,000-100,000 and C$100,000+ (see This information makes two things clear:
1)     There are more issues, beyond fee policy, keeping Quebec's disadvantaged out of university; and
2)     Quebec’s well-off are disproportionately benefiting from the province’s low fees.

Furthermore, the Quebec Ministry of Education recently reported that 32.4% of Quebec university students “who ended their undergraduate studies did so without having obtained a diploma” (see Henry Aubin’s article, “A startling rate of failure”, available here Using this measure, Quebec’s dropout rate is over twice the national average while having the lowest fees in the country. Low fees are not even helping students to complete their studies.

Proponents of artificially low tuition fees assert that low fees improve access to higher education. Low fees undoubtedly make higher education slightly less expensive, but the major costs to a student are living costs and the cost of being out of full time work for the duration of studies. Despite their comparatively high fees, Canadian provinces like Ontario, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island have better higher education participation rates than Quebec in spite of having much higher fees. It should not be surprising that these are provinces who also invest in school outreach, needs-based financial assistance, and financial support programs – initiatives that are more closely tied to improving access to higher education than arbitrary fees caps.

So why is the student protest a bad thing?

Most of the students studying at Quebec’s universities are drawn from middle to upper socio-economic groups, and this is unlikely to change no matter how low or high the provincial fee cap is unless Quebec (and its student leadership) takes a hard look at the real reasons why students from less advantaged backgrounds, recent immigrants, and native populations in Quebec are turning away from higher education. Focussing on this fee increase, and the resulting student protests, allows the Quebec government to ignore these larger and more pressing issues.

It is important to understand this “protest” in Quebec for what it really is: a desire to maintain the status quo for those already privileged. Fees for most Canadian undergraduates are, thankfully, nowhere near as expensive as they will be for students studying in England. The public has a limited appetite for groups shutting down roads, increasing security budgets, and generally disrupting the peaceful enjoyment of public life in the name of “injustice”. Unfortunately, Quebec’s student protests will mark students as “crying wolf” the next time they protest a change in fee or access policy – and then it could actually be worth protesting.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Private universities: Vigorous Debate? Yes. Apocalypse? No

The recent attack on philosopher Professor AC Grayling at a debate on the proposed private 'New College of the Humanities' has highlighted the need for cogent, intelligent debate over the existence of privately-financed universities in England (for more on the attack, please see

For those who have not been following the unfolding melodrama that is English higher education policy, a number of publicly prominent academics (including Grayling and biologist Professor Richard Dawkins) announced on 5 June that they are founding a new, privately-financed higher education institution (please see for the announcement). The proposed institution will
be federated with the University of London. Tentatively named the "New College of the Humanities", the proposed college claims it will keep class sizes very small, focus on an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, and will foster an intimate scholarly community (see the college's website at

What is causing all the fuss is that the college proposes to charge students £18,000 per year and claims that it will operate without public financial support. Reports suggest the college is intending on providing some amount of financial relief for 20% of each year's student intake.

Given the reaction of those who released a smoke bomb at a debate over the creation of the new institution, one might assume these protesters see the 'New College of the Humanities' as the end of publicly-assisted universities in England. This position is supported by literary critic Dr. Terry Eagleton in his piece, "AC Grayling's private university is odious" (see As attractive as this position may be to those who believe in publicly-supported higher education, it is almost certainly a gross over-estimation of what will take place.

In 2002, the former President of the University of British Columbia, Dr. David Strangeway, successfully led the creation of a new, private university in Canada. The new institution, Quest University, declared it would offer an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum with small classes and high interaction between students and prominent academics (... sound familiar?). Quest also claimed it would not use any public funding. It current has student fees of $27,000 Canadian per year with offers of financial relief for those demonstrating need (for more information on Quest University please see

I draw this comparison between the New College of the Humanities and Quest University for two reasons. The first reason is to point out that the entire public-assisted university systems of British Columbia and the other Canadian provinces have not collapsed as a consequence of the existence of a private university. Despite some post-colonial protestations to the contrary, the Canadian university system is not unlike that of the UK. Canada's universities are legally autonomous bodies which receive a considerable percentage of their research and teaching funding from public sources (the exact percentage is different from province to province). Canada also have a long history of fees, which could help guide England through its current student financing policy morass (but that is the topic for another time). If anything, the relative youth of the Canadian university system would have made it more susceptible to attack by private universities absorbing the country's talented students.

In reality, only half of Quest's enrolment comes from Canada. The rest of its students come from the United States or overseas. Canadian students have drawn the conclusion that if one is smart enough to earn admission to the more prestigious, publicly-assisted universities, which are also much cheaper, one goes to UBC, Victoria, Toronto, McGill, Queen's, Memorial, etc. One doesn't pay $28,000 to attend Quest. It is highly probable that the New College of the Humanities will experience the same phenomenon.

The second reason to draw a comparison between the two institutions is with regard to the real problem with universities like Quest and the New College of the Humanities: the claim that they will be entirely private. While the fees for both institutions are relatively high, they are unlikely to generate enough revenue to fund what these institutions claim they can do. In the case of Quest, it didn't. In its early days, Quest explained that it would hire prominent academics who already had posts at existing, publicly-assisted universities. Not having to support full time staff means that an institution can have much lower costs. It also means that the publicly-assisted universities are essentially subsidizing the private institution by inadvertently "farming out" academic staff.

Academic staff working for a private institution in a part time capacity may argue that the time they spend at the private institution is their own - perhaps while on sabbatical, or time that would otherwise be used for independent research. The truth is that sabbatical or research time is NOT private time for the academic - it is still time which the home university can expect some level of productivity. The hiring of academics with 'home positions' at publicly-assisted universities represents public money (and support) bleeding from the public system into the private. While this alone doesn't represent a huge threat to the public university system, it is certainly unfair and wrong for a private university depending on part time staff drawn from public institutions to suggest it is not a drain on the public purse.

At the moment, the New College of the Humanities is claiming it will be truly independent from public sources of funding. It remains to be seen if this is really the case. The academics supporting the new institutions' foundation may be expected to relinquish their positions at existing public institutions if this 'New College' will truly be private. The test will be seeing how many do so.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

So What? Oxford's Congregation Non-Confidence in Government

This afternoon (7 June 2011), Oxford's "dons' parliament" voted 283 in favour (5 against) of a motion declaring no confidence in the current UK Secretary of State Universities and Science (see Oxford's Congregation is a body composed of all the the university's full time academic staff. The total number of eligible voters is over 4,500. The turnout for this vote was one of the highest for a meeting of Congregation in five years.

I could not agree more that the UK government's higher education policy is chaotic. It is direction-less. It is disjointed and it is short sighted.

The purpose of the non-confidence vote is to convince the government to reverse some of the decisions it has made with regard to higher education funding. However, Oxford's Congregation members (and the universities to follow in the wake of Oxford's no-confidence motion. See may not have the impact on government policy they are hoping to inspire.

The problem with the vote is expecting the government to (a) see Oxford Congregation as a threat and (b) to expect the public to be drawn to academics' opinion that government policy on higher education is poor. The unfortunate reality that Congregation only represents the academics of Oxford makes this non-confidence vote smack of self interest. Student support of the vote runs the same risk. Higher education does not affect everyone equally - those that access universities are, largely, from upper-upper middle classes. Oxford's Congregation vote can easily be seen as a group of privileged people complaining the government is threatening their privilege. Hardly inspiring public support.

If anything, it will suggest an arrogance that many already associate with university academics: "agree with me because I know best". There are other, and potentially more effective, strategies to convince the public of the higher education cause. These alternate strategies could have focused on access to higher education (please see my article on the cancellation of the AimHigher program,

If the government takes any action, such as forcing David Willets to resign, it will likely to be to install a government 'strongman' into the post to bring the higher education sector to heel. From the government's perspective, this vote of non-confidence (and those to follow at other universities) is only evidence Willets hasn't been tough enough on the university sector (case in point, the shockingly ill-advised comments by Willets's former tutor at Christ Church College, Oxford If Willets does resign, he's not going to be replaced with a kinder, gentler Secretary of State. It will signal a crack down.

The best case scenario of Congregation's no-confidence vote, in all likelihood, is that the government does not respond at all.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

An Example of AimHigher at Work... just in time to be canceled

The Oxford University student paper, The Cherwell, published a great piece on an access outreach program at Oxford designed to encourage students without a history of higher education participation in their families to consider university and Oxford specifically. The program involves bringing students selected by their respective schools to Oxford to participate in a murder mystery. The murder mystery exposes the students to various fields of academic study such as classical history, chemistry and geography. The program is also designed to de-mystify Oxford in particular with college dinners, exploring the colleges and the city (for the full story & some video on the murder mystery program, please see

Why is it important to mention this program? Because it is one of the programs that will suffer as a consequence of cancelling the UK's AimHigher program (for details of the AimHigher program & its demise, please see my previous post Now, one could suggest that Oxford can continue to run this outreach program without the AimHigher support. In fact, the UK's Office For Fair Access (OFFA) requires English universities charging more than £6,000 per year in student fees MUST have outreach programs (Oxford has declared it will charge the permitted upper limit of £9,000). And it is true that Oxford can continue to run a murder mystery for potential students.

However, what AimHigher added was coordination of schools to identify the students to participate in these programs. Individual universities cannot do is this nearly as effectively as AimHigher was doing. While Oxford's murder mystery does sound fun, the point of the program is to expose students who could benefit from being exposed to a university (or, more particularly, a highly selective university like Oxford). Oxford can't do this itself. If it could, it would have. The point of AimHigher was to identify and expose those students not considering university to higher education. The main complaint against Oxford's admissions process is that the university doesn't attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds. AimHigher brought these students to the gates of the Oxford colleges to see what is available and open to them.

The Cherwell has put a human face on the victims of the government's short-sighted, mean and poorly-considered decision to sacrifice AimHigher in the interest of deficit-fighting. AimHigher was a program that would fight the negative consequences of England's new fee regime. Too bad the government hasn't realized this.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Missing the Target – the Great Mistake of Canceling the AimHigher Program

Missing the Target – the Great Mistake of Cancelling the AimHigher Program

Andrew M. Boggs

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Spending Freely on Research, Canada Reverses Brain Drain”, 20 February 2011, ) discusses the advantageous position the Canadian higher education sector is in compared to the United States. The article focuses on Canadian research funding policy since the late 1990s. New programs and funding streams have been introduced designed to attract scholars from around the world to Canadian universities and to keep Canadian rising stars in the country. These programs came toward the end of a period of national austerity as Canadian federal and provincial governments made massive cuts to public spending (including cuts to operating budgets of universities). Research funding represented a politically justifiable means of directing funds back into the higher education sector. Jennifer Lewington, the author of the article and a Canadian-based reporter on education issues, draws the conclusion that these sustained investments in university research are putting Canada in a stronger position than the United States and the United Kingdom to recruit the next generation of world-leading researchers. The likelihood of Lewington’s prediction coming true is strengthened by new visa restrictions on foreign nationals coming to the US and the UK. While Canada may not be the primary English-language destination of choice for university academic staff, it is certainly eating into the future prosperity of UK and US-based university research.

There is an equally significant policy divergence occurring between the UK and Canada in the realm of student access to higher education. The UK’s new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government conducted a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) through the autumn of 2010. A number of programs faced the chopping block in the interest of reducing public expenditures. One of these programs was AimHigher. The AimHigher program was introduced by the Labour government in 2004 as one of the tools through which the UK would achieve its (now abandoned) goal of 50% school-leaver participation in some form of tertiary education. AimHigher funded programs, organized and offered at the local school level, included such activities as visits to university campuses, residential summer schools in universities, open days and student mentoring schemes. The programs were targeted to schools and students in disadvantaged communities to encourage and support participation in higher education. AimHigher funding will stop as of July 2011. The government has suggested that the negative impact of killing AimHigher will be ameliorated by a new National Scholarship Program (see “Aimhigher brought down by coalition axe”, Times Higher Education, 25 November 2010, and by requiring individual universities to conduct more of their own student outreach (see “How to Produce an Access Agreement for 2012-13”, Office For Fair Access, 1 March 2011, Unfortunately, given the funding cuts universities are to receive, it is difficult to imagine there being enough new revenue from increased student fees to fund expanded university-based student outreach efforts. This is to say nothing of the economies of scale lost when many universities are duplicating their outreach efforts versus funding coordinated, locally-based programs which work with multiple institutions.

Discussion about the elimination of AimHigher has been overshadowed by the national debate over fee levels and the cutting of teaching funding in the humanities and social sciences. This prioritization is understandable – the new fee and accompanying income-contingent loan repayment system effects those currently accessing university education. The middle class, the largest single component of the voting public, are disproportionately represented in universities. Not surprisingly, the fees (and loans) this group will be paying have come to dominate the discussion over access to higher education.

Despite the public fixation on the fees issue in the UK, research suggests that fees are not the main reason individuals from under-represented groups (such as those from lower socio-economic status families) do not attend university. Research extending back as far as the late 1980s suggests that parental encouragement is the single most important factor whether or not a child considers higher education an option (see Stager, Focus on Fees, 1989). Parental encouragement is often tied to parental achievement in higher education, but not exclusively. It is possible for children who are “first generation” university attendees to have been encouraged into higher education by parents who did not attend university themselves. More recent research has found that peer group expectation (i.e. what one’s friends’ plans are) is also a major contributing factor (see Schuetze & Slowey, “Participation and exclusion: a comparative analysis of non-traditional students and lifelong learners in higher education” (2002) for an international comparative view, and Ross Finnie, et al, “Under-Represented Groups in Postsecondary Education in Ontario: Evidence from the Youth in Transition Survey” (2011) and “Access to Postsecondary Education” (2011) for the latest Canadian research). While ability to pay fees is obviously not an insignificant aspect of access to higher to education, it is important to recognize the importance of family and peer group supports when designing policy that will be effective in attracting underrepresented groups to universities. Students have to know how to get to university before worrying about the cost. This is exactly what AimHigher was designed to address.

Canadian policy makers have embraced the above research and are investing in outreach programs designed to support and encourage primary and secondary school students living in underprivileged environments to finish high school and consider higher education. One such program is Pathways to Education. The Pathways program provides mentorship and additional academic support to secondary school students in socially disadvantaged areas of the country. It started as a community-led initiative in a depressed area of the city of Toronto. The provincial government recognized the success of the Pathways program in helping students complete secondary school and apply for higher education. The program was then expanded to other parts of Toronto and throughout the province of Ontario. Most recently, the federal government of Canada announced an expansion of the Pathways program across the country (see “Pathways to Education”, Prime Minister of Canada media release, 3 March 2011,

While the Pathways program does not repair pre-existing inequalities in educational or family environments it does provide academic and social supports designed to broaden students’ expectations of life after completing secondary school. It coordinates mentorship for students at risk of not completing secondary school as well as exposing students to vocational and higher education. Like AimHigher, Pathways is community-based but is supported centrally through government funding and infrastructure support (for more information on the Pathways to Education program see

The legacy of Canada’s investment in university research during a period of cutbacks is now being born out. Canada is literally stealing leading edge academics from the countries it used to fear – the United Kingdom and the United States. This change required sustained policy and funding committed to a goal of attracting researchers to Canadian universities. Equally, if not more importantly, Canada is committed to making its higher education systems accessible. It is doing this by addressing social inequalities that go beyond the student fee debate and considers research on the issue of university access and student decision-making. And yet, just as Canada is expanding its outreach and support programs for higher education, the UK is cancelling AimHigher. It should be alarming that at the very point the UK government should be mitigating the most disastrous effects of public sector cuts, it cuts a program designed to seek out and encourage participation from those individuals most at risk of being lost to higher education. Instead public debate (including many well-intentioned academics) has focused on the price tag for those who would attend university regardless of the price. The UK needs to sort out its higher education policy priorities or it risks being left behind by Canada. Again.

(NB: A version of this post was published in University Affairs, the journal of the Association of University and Colleges of Canada, on 10 May 2011 and may be found at

Thursday, 13 January 2011

University of California system in trouble... Huh. No kidding!

The Times Higher Education has published a very interesting story on the risks currently faced by the oft lauded University of California system ("The Fruits of Californication", 13 January 2011,

The University of California is often held up by policy makers and higher education scholars as an example of a perfect (or as close to) higher education system. It is rational and centrally-planned. There is a negotiated but intentional articulation between institutions, programs and courses which allows students to navigate a single, coordinated system of adult education. The relative ease of student mobility and institutional cooperation with the University of California has been the envy of governments throughout North America and the UK. It ticks all the boxes for higher ed policy makers at the end of the twentieth/ early twenty-first century: enabling life-long learning, rational use and deployment of funding and the prioritization of a world class flag-ship campus. Order, rationality and transparency. What more could one want?

Unfortunately, the biggest weakness of the University of California may be its inherent interdependent connectedness. The University of California is predicated on the assumption that intelligent design is an advisable way to approach a higher education system. Until now, most higher ed scholars and policy makers agreed. Canadian provinces (especially Eastern provinces), other US states, and the UK have reflected negatively on their own, by comparison 'hodge podge' collection of universities and colleges. They've believed that the historical accidents that led to their respective independent, autonomous and in no way intentionally articulated universities made their own higher education "non systems" inferior to the intelligently designed University of California.

However, what this Times Higher Education article begins to suggest is that interdependent connectedness is not all that it is cracked up to be. The University of California is so efficient in its design that it doesn't have redundant systems, i.e. if one aspect of the University of California fails due to underfunding the entire system suffers. There is no fall back position and the system has restricted ability to adapt and change.

By comparison, the "non systems" of eastern North America are actually what one should call "ecosystems" of inter-relating (but not interdependent) institutions. Although interacting with each other, these systems are comprised of independent institutions that pursue and consider their own interest, versus a collective interest, first. This makes these systems more robust and capable of adapting to change (perhaps even evolving...?). If a few courses, programs or even institutions fail (which has been suggested with regard to England in the wake of the UK government's Comprehensive Spending Review) the entire higher education system does not collapse.

It could be that the very thing many policy makers thought was the golden fleece of university systems is the actually Achilles' heel of the University of California...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Oxford University Student Fees Protest - 24 November 2010

25 November 2010, Oxford, UK

The famous Oxford Boldeian Library has been forced to close today due to ongoing student protests (please see and

I went to watch the 'student' protests of the proposed increase in university tuition fees yesterday (it's part of my area of academic interest). I noted that while a balaclava-wearing protest leader standing on the steps of the Radcliffe Camera library invited fellow protesters to "eat pizza in the Bodleian" over a megaphone, two of Oxford's homeless were eating left over pizza crusts from the bin on Brasenose Lane, in view of the protest. I wonder what these to people made of a largely upper middle class group of young people (statistically speaking) complaining that they have to pay more for what is an incredibly privileged lifestyle to begin with...? I am sure they would have simply appreciated the pizza.

Those supporting these protests should realize that money to subsidize higher education doesn't automatically come from a handful of bankers' bonuses, or simply raising taxes. It comes from other social programs and health spending. As a former policy advisor in Canada on these issues, I agree what has been proposed for England is short-sighted & not especially well-informed policy. However, I also think the idea that all students deserve a free ride with regard higher education is not only bad policy but incredibly selfish. Very little of the current and proposed student financial assistance plans associated with the fee increases is tied to means-testing (i.e. measuring the actual financial need of the student).

Arguably it would make much more sense for English universities to charge up-front fees (rather than the purely income contingent loan repayment scheme that is in place currently) and for those in need of grants and loans to receive them on a means-tested basis than having a universal program which allows even the most wealthy to receive low interest loans subsidized by the public for the duration of a students' studies? One supposed that the architects of the proposed policy spent a lot of time looking at the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) circa 1990s, failing to notice how that system is now imploding under the weight of poor, politically-motivated tinkering. One further assumes that little if any consideration was given to the imperfect but largely successful Canadian approaches to the same questions.

Hopefully, for the sake of these Oxford students who need to access their library, that it reopens soon...